Feeling Bad & Being Bad – Allowing ALL of Your Selfs into Therapy

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“And, what if – after everything that I’ve been through – something’s gone wrong inside me? What if I’m becoming bad..?”
 “I want you to listen very carefully: You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. You understand? Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters – we’ve all got both light and dark inside of us.”

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The above is a transcript from Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix – film, not book – an exchange between Harry and his godfather, but – Death Eaters aside – this could just as easily have been a dialogue between Little S. and P. It’s a conversation they have had many, many times, and one – I suspect – that they will continue to have many more times.

The concept of somehow being bad because of what has happened to us is a common one among people who have suffered sexual abuse. The sense that our experiences in childhood has somehow tainted us, marked us for life, is something I think many can relate to. And even though the adult part of us may well be able to recognise that this is not the case, for our inner child this is a stain that feels all but impossible to remove. It has sunk so deep into the grain of what we were made of, that removing it feels as if it would mean removing a part of who we are. This is especially true if the abuse began when the we were very young, before we have had a chance to form a strong sense of our Selfs.

Little S. struggles greatly with being able to understand that feeling bad and being bad are not the same thing. She finds it almost impossible to distinguish between the two. And that makes perfect sense; because what was happening to her made her feel terribly bad inside, at the same time as one of the abusers made it his favourite pastime to reinforce again and again and again that the reason why he was doing what he was doing to her was precisely because she was bad, the two concepts got mixed up. So, ‘feeling bad’ became ‘being bad’. And, between the abuse and being fed the black and white fairytales that most children are fed, where bad people do only bad things and good people do only good things, yet another truth was formed: if you do something bad, you must be a bad person. Even the dialogue above goes on to state that “What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” It’s a lovely sentiment, on the surface – our actions define who we are, we can choose to be good rather than bad. But, – and it is rather a big but – for a child in an abuse situation, choices are limited, and more often than not we had to do things which we perceived as being bad [playing along, saying the things the abusers wanted to hear, we may even have been taught to act ‘provocatively’ by the abuser and so on..] all of which even further instilled in us that we were indeed bad. We didn’t just feel bad about what was happening or about the choices we were forced to make, we were bad. And because we were bad, we deserved the bad things that were happening to us. After all, the villain of the fairytale must inevitably be punished; the bad guy banished, put in prison or even killed..

As I am writing this I am aware of Adult Me wanting to step in, to protest, to tell Little S. that she is not the villain, she is not to blame. That those choices weren’t really choices at all, and those actions [the ‘playing along’, the ‘saying the right things’..] were extraordinarily complex survival skills dressed as what looked like bad choices. And that is a very good sign of health on Adult Me’s part, both the wanting to step in to protect Little S. from those misconceptions, and the ability to see them for what they are – but, Little S. needs therapy, too – Little S. especially needs therapy – she needs to be allowed to explain what the world looks and feels like to her, she needs the space to share her truth and to have that truth heard and accepted. So, for now, Adult Me will need to take half a step back.

And that can be a real struggle in therapy. I’ve written previously about this difficulty, how in my work with P. we found that the way to allow Little S. to speak, without Adult Me interfering or even censoring, was not found inside of the fifty minute hour, but in emails and drawings between the sessions. And even that didn’t happen overnight. It took conscious effort on behalf of Adult Me to stop herself from editing Little S.’s communication with P. And that is a hard, hard, thing to do. But, it has finally given Little S. a voice of her own. And, recently – with a lot of hard work – Little S. has even been able to have her very own fifty minute hours with P.

P. and I work a lot on trying to understand what feelings, thoughts and beliefs belong to which parts, and also to recognise that they are all valid. [Not necessarily true, but absolutely valid]. The different parts agree wholeheartedly on some things and disagree wildly on others, and for me, it has been incredibly helpful to stop and listen to what the different parts have to say.

When Little S. writes emails, she does so using childish phrases that Adult Me would never use, and in session she speaks with the kind of language and grammar and even tone of voice that a child of four or seven or nine would – even when she writes by hand, she does so in her own writing. It’s not about acting – I’m not pretending to be a child again – I am just temporarily holding back the other parts, I am turning down the background noise, so that Little S.’s voice can be better heard. And it is so so helpful. Not just to Little S., but to all the different parts of my internal system. It helps us notice where different parts struggle, and it helps us understand where the different internal conflicts take place. And it feels good to know that each part can exist both in its own right, and as part of the whole system; that the whole is simultaneously both exactly the sum of its parts, and so so much more.

I still struggle with this – it is simply not an easy job, understanding oneself and ones inner workings – and it has helped enormously having P. actively encourage all the different parts to speak up. This is one of the things that makes therapy so great: you’re not doing it on your own, there is a second heart and soul in there with you.

I know that working in this way – understanding the whole as being made up of many different parts – is not for everyone – and I also recognise that I am only at the very beginning of this journey myself; I am in no way an expert in the field, but, I would recommend anyone to give it a go. Maybe sit down and allow your Little to write a letter – about anything [it doesn’t have to be about something particularly difficult or painful] – in his or her own words, without the self-consciousness of your Adult Self holding them back.

Whether or not you choose to bring what you write to session, I think that you will discover both how difficult it can be to separate one part of yourself from another – and just how much your Little has to say, perhaps even things that he or she may not have been able to say before. And that has got to be worth quite a lot, don’t you think?

Do be kind to your Selfs.

All the very best,

xx

The Harry Potter and Sirius scene

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Concrete Angels

 how i used to feel

and how i still feel sometimes; 

sad and frozen in concrete

 

little s

 
 

adult me

 

 

baby s

  

Running Up That Hill

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And if I only could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get Her to swap our places
I’d be running up that road
Be running up that hill
~ With no problems..’

*

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I’m not sure what Kate Bush had in mind when she wrote that song, those lyrics, but they really speak to me. I feel I’ve been running up that hill forever now, getting nowhere. It isn’t getting any easier, and I really wish there was a way to swap places, to make that deal. I’ve been running up that road for so many years, but nothing has changed. Lots has happened, but nothing has changed.

Last night was the 21st anniversary of the very first time I tried to end my life. I was seventeen and I didn’t know how to make the abuse stop, didn’t dare communicate what was going on – what had been going on for as long as I could remember, because I didn’t know what would happen if I did. So, at the very end of my mother’s 50th birthday I swallowed a cocktail of random anti-depressants, mood stabilisers, sleeping tablets and painkillers. This was before the internet, before you could google your way to the perfect concoction to put an end to your misery, and as a consequence I survived.

I woke up to a whole new world. One where – in a flurry of activity – suddenly lots of people knew about the abuse. Social services got called in. I remember so well how the head of social services – who just happened to be a close friend of the family – told me that ‘No one is allowed to make you do anything that you don’t want to do. Ever.’ Except, of course, that I would have to talk to the police and I would have to go to court, whether or not I wanted to, because those were not things I had the choice to opt out of.. You see where I’m going with this? Something happened, but nothing changed.

I’ve been in therapy for years and years and years by now, and although I firmly believe that talking about what happened – in a safe environment with a therapist sensitive to my needs [as opposed to at a police station or in a court room] – is key to ultimately reducing the traumatic re-experiencing of abuse that I am faced with every time I have a flashback, it feels as if that day is very very far away. Hardly even a blip on a distant horizon.

I know that if I manage to find a way to keep running up that hill – because, trust me, therapy can be such an uphill run – my day to day life could be greatly improved, in terms of the amount of flashbacks I suffer, in terms of being able to make and keep plans, in terms of feeling more in charge of my life. And that would be great. It really would.

But then there is that other thing. The Not Having Children.
No amount of therapy can change that. I could do therapy every day for the next two thousand four hundred and sixty-eight years, and that fact would simply not change. People are forever telling me that ‘No, that wouldn’t change. But, you might change. You might feel differently about it.’

Only I know that I won’t.

This is a wound that cannot heal. There are constant reminders to keep that wound open and bleeding. Three people in my life are currently pregnant, due at various points next year – so I already know that 2015 will be another year of Everyone Else having children. Another year of tears burning my skin as they roll down my face. Of a pain so sharp it shreds my soul from the inside..

And the problem is that every year is going to be A Year Like That. Until it turns into endless years of Everyone Else Having Grandchildren. And I can’t face a life like that. I just can’t.

Even if I managed to somehow accept that I won’t have children, I just can’t accept a life without them.

I will try, as I have been trying. But, I know that one day, soon, I’ll run out of steam. And I’ll stop running.

It is sad.
But it is what it is.

xx

Running Up That Hill [A Deal With God] Copyright © 1985 Kate Bush

A Little Bit Of Therapy Related Art

A little bit of art until I find the energy to sort my PC out so I can post a real update..

Sky Red

Sky Red

Dissociation

Dissociation

Painting My Feelings When Words Won't Suffice

Painting My Feelings When Words Won’t Suffice

I often use art as a tool for expressing myself. Especially when it comes to things that can’t ever be fully expressed, because I don’t fully understand it myself. To me, colours, textures, light and shadows evoke their own feelings and I try to use that in my art.

The bottom one I used in therapy the other day. I had been talking about the court case against my brother and had a lot of feelings floating around inside of me, but lacked the words to adequately describe them to P. [or even to myself], so when I got home I made that painting and brought it with me to session the next day. Together we managed to find some words to go with it.

xx

Daring To Trust

 

Today I did something that scared me, something that made me feel, something that needed me to be braver than I have ever been before. I shared something that I had never ever shared with anyone before.

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I have now been seeing P. for just over a month. Ten sessions to be precise. And it has been, well, quite a big change for me. It is hard to not constantly compare the work I am doing with her to the work I did with A. It isn’t so much that I keep thinking that one is decidedly better than the other, but I am struck, over and over, by how different it is to be in therapy with P. The relationship we are tentatively building has a whole different feel to it, there is an added dimension to it, a quality that is hard to paint in words, but which is so real I can almost feel it physically.

That said, I miss A. I do. I really miss her. I miss the way I would spend time in session self-analysing and contemplating different angles to things, turning things round and round and having the luxury of going through all the ins and outs of my thoughts, with A. every now and then reflecting back to me what she heard me say.

I find myself, sometimes, making statements that I feel would have fitted well in A.’s therapy room, but which don’t quite work in the space I share with P. I find that doing my ‘getting into therapy mode’ routine, which I have been doing for nearly five years with A., feels awkward and out of place with P. I still do it, because it is simply the way I kick into gear, but I always feel very aware that P. is there, waiting for me to look at her and greet her properly.

So, there’s a lot to get used to. I find it so scary, the way P. meets me at the door, always with a big, warm and welcoming smile, and the way she seeks to make eye contact with me. I find her invitation to form a real relationship with her absolutely terrifying. There are alarm bells going off all over the place, simply because they have been tuned to mistrust that kind of openness and warmth, has been trained to automatically look for the ulterior motive behind any random act of kindness.

But, I am determined to not allow myself to use that fear as an excuse not to dig deeper. I am determined to find a way to ‘dare to trust’, to challenge my own hardwired concept of the world, of others being out to cause me harm. So, I’ve been pushing on with P. I’ve used my sessions to talk and talk and talk and talk about this fear of attaching, this extreme inability to trust – I’ve talked very openly about it all and she, in turn, has responded to it. And I think that that is where some of the healing may lay; in having those fears heard, having that reluctance be understood and accepted. Because – paradoxically – that is what may ultimately allow me to let my guard down, to allow P. in for real.

And today I took a leap of faith. I brought my journal with me, and I shared a drawing I made this morning of something that happened to me, something I had relived in the form of a flashback earlier today, and which I have never ever shared with anyone before.

It was incredibly scary to do, and before I did it, before I even opened up my journal, we spent time talking about what I was feeling, what the fear really was. I explained that there was something about P.’s presence that made me feel more scared than I would be, if I were on my own with the drawing. That something about her being there made me feel more exposed, more vulnerable, because I didn’t know how I would react to looking at the drawing in front of her, and I also didn’t know how she would react. The metaphor I used to explain it to P. was that it’s like standing in front of the mirror, naked, and then doing the same thing, but with someone next to you. The first is hard enough to do, the second all the more frightening.

At first I just sat with the journal in my lap, looking at the drawing I had made, without sharing it with P. Just to see what that would feel like, to test the waters. I found it difficult, had to actually use my hand to cover up the parts of my drawing that felt too difficult to look at. And then, in the middle of doing this – in the middle of shielding myself from my own drawing – it occurred to me that I didn’t need to be the one who was stuck with the drawing. I didn’t need to shield myself from it. I could give it to P., and she could protect me from the full force of the raw horror that the drawing contained. So, I handed it over to her, barely daring to look at her.

But I did. Look at her. And, yes, there was a reaction to what I had drawn, an obvious emotional response to what she was seeing splashed across her face, and it made me feel very afraid, anxious that maybe I had pushed her too hard, too soon. But then P. spoke, first about how what I had shared in the drawing was something no child should have to experience, and later, about how she felt about me having shared it with her. And it made me feel better.

In the session before this one, I also shared something, in words rather than through a drawing that time, and towards the end of the session P. asked me how I felt about what I had shared. So I talked about it. And then – the thing that made me really feel that there might be a possibility that I could trust her to take good care of me – she asked if maybe I needed to also know how she was feeling, having listened to me. So, I nodded and said that I thought that would be good, feeling so immensely grateful that she had understood how enormous my fear of breaking others with my story is.

And that – her honesty in sharing exactly how listening to me affected her – is what made it possible for me to take this huge step in today’s session. Because, something about that – about P. not holding back on her own response, is what makes me feel safe, makes me feel that she knows her own limitations, and that – because of this – she wouldn’t allow either one of us to go further than we could cope with.

xx

“It’s time we made a place
Where people’s souls may be seen and made safe

Be careful with each other
These fragile flames..
For innocence can’t be lost
It just needs to be maintained..”

JK

 

Innocence Maintained  © 1998 Jewel Kilcher

Living With PTSD – Not Like The Movies

I managed to go to service this morning, for the first time in a long long while. Last week I couldn’t go because I had managed to give myself a concussion, before then it was down to running a temperature, and before then – for many many weeks – it has been due to simply not being up to it; too depressed, too submerged in my life/death battle. And then there’s the PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. The bane of my life. A big reason for previously mentioned life/death battle.

I feel that a lot of people don’t really understand what post-traumatic stress disorder is. Or, more accurately, they may not be aware of how it affects people. I think that, at least in part, media is responsible for this. People have generally heard of flashbacks as being one of the symptoms of PTSD, and you often come across storylines in which characters suffer from this disorder, and the viewers are treated to an insight into the flashbacks that they experience in a variety of ways. Only, there’s an issue with this: having a flashback isn’t like watching something happening on a film screen. It’s about feelings. About re-experiencing the traumatic event, as if it is happening all over again, and having an emotional response to it. Again and again and again and again.

In the most recent episode of BBC’s Silent Witness, the storyline followed a former soldier suffering from PTSD. It was explained that certain sounds and situation could trigger flashbacks for him. So far so good; this is all true for many people suffering from PTSD. Later on in the program we got to ‘experience’ a flashback alongside the character: he saw a person on the street, it morphed into a flashback person – someone who wasn’t actually there – someone who had been part of the trauma. All of this is fairly accurate, I think, for a lot of people: flashbacks can very well be triggered by someone who looks like someone who was part of the traumatic event, and flashbacks can absolutely cause a person to see someone who isn’t really there. Happens to me all the time.

But then the character talked to someone about his experience of having flashbacks, and when the person listening to him said something along the lines of “That must be really horrible” the character’s reply was “No, it’s OK. It’s actually quite nice.”

And this, to me, is a huge departure from what PTSD sufferers truly deal with. I have yet to meet a single person suffering from PTSD who would describe having flashbacks as ‘nice’. Because the disorder is caused by traumatic experiences, often very extreme ones, you are not likely to have an emotional response which could in any way, shape or form be described as ‘nice’. Having a traumatic experience is not nice, thus, the emotional response will probably not include positive feelings.

Let me illustrate: say your previously wonderful and perfect partner rapes you. Very traumatic, very hard to deal with, extremely emotionally damaging. Let’s say the effects of the experience go so far as to cause you to develop PTSD. You now have flashbacks of the event. This is hardly going to trigger emotions related to the rosy honey-moon period of your relationship. Whilst you may still – in your conscious mind – remember that time when your partner brought home a dozen roses and your favourite chocolates, and the lovely feelings that gave you, those feelings will not be triggered by a flashback to the rape. They just won’t. Those lovely feelings weren’t associated with the rape, and so can’t be triggered by flashbacks to the trauma.

When you have PTSD [as I understand it, and put in layman’s terms] the memories of the trauma are stored in a different part of the brain to where other, ‘normal’, memories are stored, and the response flashbacks produce completely bypass the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought. Thus, even though some part of you may be aware that the trauma isn’t really happening right now, and most of the time you are able to remember both positive and negative aspects of a relationship [assuming there have been both], because rational thought is taken out of the equation, your emotional response to a flashback will be as if it the trauma had only just happened, and will involve the feelings you either had at the time, or the feelings you may have had to repress at the time in order to survive. It won’t involve feelings related to an entirely different situation.

I mentioned earlier that flashbacks are often caused by triggers. But there is more to it. While a majority of people with PTSD have flashbacks caused by external triggers [sounds, smells etc – things that in one way or another remind them of the trauma], some people – myself included – have flashbacks that are caused primarily by internal triggers. Internal triggers are tricky, because they are difficult to identify. And if you can’t identify triggers, it is almost impossible to avoid them.

For me, personally, it is often a case of one flashback triggering the next, in a continuous chain, and I am just as likely to have flashbacks if I am out having an absolutely fantabulous time ice-skating with my friends, as I am sitting with someone talking about really deep and difficult things. In short, if I’m going to have a flashback, it will happen, regardless of what I am doing, where I am or who I am with.

One of the first things people [professionals in particular, actually] tend to ask is “What do you do to stop the flashbacks from happening?” to which I answer “Nothing”. They will then in one way or another convey to me that I have a very negative and defeatist attitude which isn’t helpful. Or they will suggest that I do something nice and relaxing – light candles, have a bath, listen to music, and so on. So, I tell them, oh, I do all of those things. Because they are very nice things to do. But I will still have the flashback, only I will have it in the bathtub, with the music playing and the candles all around me. I then say “You know when you go to sleep..?” adding a pause to allow the person I am talking to to nod, since this is something everyone has an experience of, before continuing “Well, you know once you are asleep, yeah?” Another nod. “At what point do you choose not to have a nightmare?”  You see, I can’t choose to not have a flashback any more than you can choose not to have a nightmare. No amount of positive thinking or relaxation is going to change it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and it simply isn’t caused by a defeatist or negative attitude. I know a million different grounding techniques to help me come out of a flashback, all of which I employ on a daily basis, and I am working very hard at finding ways to cope with the emotions the flashbacks bring out, but there is no way I can stop the flashback from happening in the first place.

I have somewhere between 30 and 40 flashbacks on an average day. On a particularly bad day, when it seems like one flashback triggers the next, I can have over a hundred. That means re-experiencing, re-living – the abuse over a hundred times in a day. It means dealing with the emotional impact a hundred times in a day. To me, the fact that I am still here, in spite of this, is proof that I absolutely do not have a defeatist attitude.

If you would like to know what it is like [for me] to have flashbacks, there is a drawing (What Words Can’t Express – A Visual Representation Of Sexual Abuse Flashbacks) that I posted a number of years ago, trying to visually explain that sense of being in two places at once – the past and the present, simultaneously. I feel pushed to warn, though, that it is somewhat graphic, and could be potentially triggering.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way an expert on PTSD, and what I have written here is based on my own experience of living with flashbacks, and on what others with PTSD have told me. Of course, as with anything, different people react in different ways, and there may very well be PTSD sufferers out there who disagree entirely with my take on what PTSD is like. And that’s OK. I just wanted to offer my view of what it’s like.

 

All the very best,

xx

 

PS. In case you happen to know me, I’ve recently added a little section on the right, appropriately called “For People Who Know Me”. You may want to check that out. Not in any way saying that you can’t check it out even if you don’t know me, it just won’t be all that relevant to you. :)

Endings: Standing On The Brink Of The Unknown

Being in therapy is being in a relationship. Therefore it follows that ending therapy is an as complex and complicated – and sometimes painful – process as ending any other relationship. There are loose ends and jagged edges to deal with, memories – good and bad – to look back at, and a struggle to not panic and in desperation seek to go back to something that just isn’t there anymore.

I have always said that things that are familiar are often also comforting to us, even when The Familiar isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself. The Familiar is comforting because it keeps The Unknown at bay. And nothing is more frightening than The Unknown.

I have four more sessions left with A.
Four more sessions, after more than four and a half years of working together. In short: it is nothing. I am standing only millimetres away from The Unknown, and I have to find the courage to not turn and run, but rather to allow myself step in to and somehow tolerate existing within it.

I have been spending a lot of time over the Chrismukkah therapy break thinking about what exactly it is that makes this ending feel so difficult, because, intellectually I can see that ending work with A. has more or less become a necessity, both because I am unable to give her the reassurance that she needs that I won’t end my life, and – perhaps more importantly – because we have simply come as far as we can, working together. The conclusions I have reached, as to why the ending is difficult is summed up in the first paragraph of this post; this is the end of a very special relationship, so how could it not be difficult? But, on top of that ‘normal’ difficulty, apart from the anxiety and sadness and sense of loss that any ending brings with it, I think that there is something I need to take from this relationship, which I fear A. might deny me, and this is what makes it so much more painful.

In November, when I finished counselling with Z. – that, too, was a difficult ending. But, I do feel that in the last few sessions – and especially in the very last one – Z. managed to provide me with that one thing I needed: the reassurance that it mattered to her too, that we would not be working together anymore. That I had made an impact on her. That she would actually miss seeing me. What I am talking about here is not a need to be told that I am her favourite person ever to work with, but something far more simple; an open acknowledgement of the fact that working with me is special, because I am special: there is only one of me. So even though my slot would soon be filled by someone else, someone just as engaging, it is still different, because the relationship between Z. and I could only happen because of who we are as individuals, and what we accomplished in those sessions was specific to our relationship, to what we jointly brought to the table.

I talked with A. about this ending at the time, explaining that those things Z. said to me meant a lot, and significantly helped make that ending, if not less difficult, at least not painful, and left me with something positive to carry forward. The fact that Z. actually told me these things, actually said them out loud, rather than simply assume that the way we had been working together and the way we relate would automatically lead me to know it, I think is important. People who have been abused tend not to take things like that for granted, because actions and the meanings of those actions have been so terribly mixed up and confused in the past.

So, I suppose, what I would like from A. is something similar. I’m not talking about any earth shatteringly emotional revelations or dramatic proclamations, but just something said, in clear plain direct speech, about the work we have been doing and about what this ending means.

I asked A. earlier in the year if I matter to her, and she decided to not answer my question, and I am sure she has her reasons for that, but, I think what I need – especially now – is for her to step away from those reasons, whatever they are, and just meet me openly and honestly. The lack of this direct communication in the last few months, is part of why therapy is now coming to an end, and seeing as there will be no Next Session in which to analyse why I asked the question, an answer would be good, would provide me with that Something that I need.

But, as I wrote earlier, my fear is that A. will not opt to go down this route of openness and honesty, and this is where I feel the pain is created. To need to hear that working with me has mattered to her, that getting to know me, hearing my thoughts, means something, is important, and to leave, having been denied it, would be excruciatingly painful.

Of course, I don’t know that this will be how things end, and I really hope that A. will have taken onboard the things I said about ending with Z., and what made that a more positive ending. But, the fear is still there, looming like a dark cloud over my head.. I am seeing A. for the first time after the break tomorrow, and I will carry on talking about all of these things with her, as I had been before the break. I just hope that her response will be different.

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Before concluding this post, I just wanted to say thank you to all who have emailed me following my last post. I am sorry that I haven’t been able to reply to all of you, but, hopefully, in time, I will. I know that this post hasn’t really been a direct follow-up on the previous one, and it isn’t because I am trying to shy away from the seriousness of the situation, which remains sadly unchanged, but because I feel that – for now – I need to try to deal with things in slightly smaller chunks, and if that means navigating by auto-pilot for a little while, well, so be it. As my sister said We much prefer Auto-Pilot to No Pilot..

But, once again, thank you all for your very kind emails and comments. They have been read, heard and appreciated.

Much love,

xx

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe – The Power Of The Past

Ever since my run-in with M. last week, I have been on extremely high alert. Like many people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder I am hyper vigilant at the best of times, but in the last week I have been a million times more nervous than usual, any sound I’m not expecting making me jump. From Monday when it happened until Wednesday night I didn’t sleep. Not as in I’ve barely slept a wink, but I literally didn’t sleep, at all. In fact, getting to A.’s place on the Wednesday afternoon was a real challenge as I was battling the symptoms of sleep deprivation, being confused, nauseas and very unsteady on my feet.

I used both my Wednesday and Friday session with A. to talk about what happened when I saw M. and how it’s really affected me quite badly. In the Wednesday session I was close to tears, just thinking about it, because I felt like any sense of security I had been able to create for myself had been totally and utterly shattered. My jitteriness was so bad that even the sound of A.’s voice made me jump more than once in session. [My relief upon realising it was A. and not someone else each time, on the other hand, was immense].

I have been trying really hard to calm myself, to tell myself that although I don’t feel safe, I am safe. Only it seems to make no difference whatsoever. My feelings out-power my intellect with frightening ease, in complete contrast to how I normally deal with any extreme emotions by rationalising them away. Also, one could argue that the reality of being safe holds very little, if any, value if you don’t feel safe.

Needless to say, my anxiety level has been on a steep upward curve every day since last Monday, doubling again and again the closer I got to my next session with Z.

Z. telephoned me on the morning of my session, just to reassure me that she would definitely be there to meet me at the reception, to let me know that I didn’t have to worry about having to walk through the building on my own. So, I picked up whatever fragments of courage I could find and set out. I had to stop several times on the way, because I was so anxious my legs didn’t seem to want to carry me. I kept looking nervously around, to see if he might be there.

And then it happened. Only fifty metres from the relative safety of the reception I spotted him. He was on the other side of the street, slightly behind me, accompanied by a woman, talking and laughing as if the world was a beautiful place to be. I stopped being the grown woman that I am in that instant and turned into 8-year-old me, hiding behind a tree as he walked past on the other side of the street. I went from Adult Me to Little S in seconds flat.

I hung back, watching him enter the building, not really knowing what to do. It was time to meet Z., but I just couldn’t go into the reception, in case he stopped to talk to someone there. So, I waited a while – I’m not sure how long – and then, on unsteady feet, made my way across the parking lot. As I cautiously approached the door, hoping to take a peek through the glass panes to make sure that M. had left the reception, a man came out through it, holding the door politely open for me. Ready or not, I had no choice but to enter.

I collapsed on one of the chairs immediately inside the door, bending forward, hiding my head in my hands, forcing myself to keep breathing. Z. came up to me right away; I guess she may have been sitting behind the receptionist desk, looking out for me – I wouldn’t know, because I never looked around when I entered.

I somehow managed to get it out that I knew M. was there, because I had seen him go in, and there was no way I could walk through the dining hall, even with Z. by my side. Z. thought for a moment and then told me to wait while she went back into the reception to ask another member of staff to open the fire exit for us, so we could enter the building that way; the only way you can get to the stairs leading to Z.’s room, without having to go through the dining hall.

I made it up to Z.’s room on shaky legs, and as soon as I was in there, I sat down on the chair. I didn’t do any of the things I usually do: put my backpack down, set my Rubik’s cube aside, take my shoes off. I just resumed the position I had had in the reception, head buried in my arms, bending over, sobbing violently without tears. It took me a good while before I was able to get back to myself enough to do those things, to bring myself back to where I was, and even then I left my shoes in such a position that I would be able to just step into them, should I need to flee.

I explained all of this to Z. That, even though she was there and I had made it to the room safely, I was ready to run, to jump through the window if need be. I just wasn’t at all able to catch hold of the fear or rein myself in. Throughout the session that feeling never left. At one point I could hear male voices in the hallway outside the room, and in panic realised that I might not be able to recognise his voice, as he would be speaking in English, and that might not at all sound like the very distinct way he spoke Swedish, with a strong Arabic accent.

That is something that has been playing in my mind almost on repeat during the last few days: the way he spoke. In particular, the way he used to say my name. He never used the short form of my name like everyone else, but would always call me by my full name, only his accent caused him to mispronounce it slightly.

It turned out to be a good session, all things considered. We spent time trying to explore the fear, and also talking about the circumstances surrounding M. coming to live with us. How we had a family meeting, talking about taking this badly psychologically damaged teenager in, and how, at first it had all been very exciting. He had three different foster families to choose from, but – much to our delight – decided on our family. He later said that the reason he chose our family over the other two was ‘because there were children’, and I couldn’t even begin to express the chills that sends down my spine thinking of it now, knowing what he went on to do.

We talked about changes that was made in my home prior to M. moving in: all toy guns, including water pistols, were banned – as M. was a refugee from the Lebanon and had seen war up close. The lock in the family bathroom was fixed, having never been in working order for as long as I could remember. I have a particularly vividly memory of my mother telling me that I was not to walk around in a towel after a bath or shower, as that wouldn’t be something he was used to, since it was something women from his culture didn’t do. It has stuck with me, that conversation with my mother, because even though I had never been someone who did that [always being very careful to cover up, never leaving my room without either being fully dressed or wearing pyjamas buttoned to the very top], I felt that there was some sort of indirect implication that were I to walk around in a state of semi-undress M. could not be held responsible for his actions. That it was somehow down to me to make sure nothing untoward happened.

We also talked a little about something else that I even now find difficult to deal with: the fact that while my parents have never outright said that I am lying about what happened with M., they have both categorically and repeatedly said that “it couldn’t have happened”. The reason they have given for this is that they were acutely aware, taking him in, that he was volatile and somewhat mentally unstable, and couldn’t necessarily be trusted as there was a violent and unpredictable side to him, and – according to them – they consequently made an agreement to ‘make sure that us children were never alone with him’. This – the idea that we were never left on our own with him – is of course highly implausible and falls to pieces at first look: my father was working full time and my mother, while being a stay-at-home mother at the time, certainly wasn’t ever someone who would be keeping her children in her sight at all times. We had always been allowed to roam free, and her own bipolar ups and downs would have had her sufficiently preoccupied to often not know where we were, or who we were with. And I know for a fact that I was regularly sent over to the guest house [where M. was staying] to fetch him. I know this because M. would often pretend that the intercom system wasn’t working when I rang to let him know dinner was ready, and my mother would tell me to not be so lazy and to just go over there and tell him myself..

Z. made a comment about this, about my parents deciding to take someone in who they apparently knew not to be safe, in spite of having three fairly young children at home. She wanted me to talk about how I felt about this, but, while I do have a lot of feelings about it, I simply didn’t feel quite able to, or – perhaps more accurately – didn’t feel quite ready – to express them.

I am not sure why my parents – who have no problem believing that their own son sexually abused me for more than twelve years – are so adamant that the abuse M. subjected me to could not have happened. Maybe the thought of having twice missed something like that is simply too much? Maybe the knowledge that he wasn’t safe, and the subsequent sense of guilt at not having protected me, stops them from being able to acknowledge – even to themselves – that it did happen? People often defend the hardest against the things that cause them the most pain, and I don’t think my parents are all that different in that respect. I have a few additional theories about their reasons for flatly denying what happened, all of them excruciatingly painful for all involved.. but, for now, I think I will keep the more probable ones to myself, as I don’t feel ready to deal with them just yet. I have on occasion talked to A. about it, but I feel that this blog is perhaps not the most appropriate place for me to explore it further. At least not for the time being.

After session, Z. walked me all the way through the building and across the parking lot outside, only saying goodbye when we got to the street, having first asked me how I was going to get home. It gave me the sense that it really mattered to her, all the things that have happened to me, all the fear I am carrying with me.

And that felt very special to me; very different to anything I have experienced before.

xx

Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that I have made no commented in this post as to whether or not the person I met really is M., or just someone who looks like him. The reason for this is that in so many ways it doesn’t matter whether it is really him or not. In my head it is him, and that’s what I am reacting to, so that’s what I have chosen to write about: my experience of what is going on. Whether the threat is real or not, the fear certainly is..

Encased In Ice Cold Fear, Trapped In Panic Mode – Upon Seeing A Ghost

I am feeling a little worried that this blog is becoming somewhat scattered, that there isn’t much of a red thread running through it anymore, and that it might be difficult to follow what’s actually going on with me, but sometimes, well, I sit down, fully intending to write an update on what I wrote about in the previous post, and it just feels like the moment has passed, and there are other – more pressing – things I feel a need to write about. Tonight is one of those times. There are two main things I feel I want to write about, so I think I will write two separate entries, to give you guys a chance to rest your eyes, hearts and souls a little in between sittings..

This Monday I went to my session with Z. as I usually do; a little lost in thought, trying to get into The Zone. The room I see Z. in is situated in a building which houses an entirely different kind of project, which is nothing to do with the counselling I am doing. In order to get to Z.’s room I have to walk through first a tiny reception area and then what seems to be some sort of dining hall. There are usually a fair few people in there when I arrive for my session and I generally just walk straight through it, not really paying attention to who is there. This time ended up being very different.

Sitting at one of the tables, right next to the door I needed to go through, was a person who was an absolute dead ringer for M., one of the people I was abused by. NOT the way he looked back then, but the way he would look now: older, heavier, but with those same eyes, the same way of looking at me..

I’m not really sure how to explain what happened, but it was as if my body reacted instantly to this person, before my brain had even had time to work out the reason for the reaction. I have prosopagnosia, a condition that is a little bit like being dyslexic, but with faces instead of letters; my brain simply doesn’t store the memory of peoples’ faces, and it is very, very rare for me to recognise people. Even people I know well, like my sisters, I’m unable to picture, when I’m not with them. But, somehow, with this person, my body reacted instantaneously, before I had even clocked what [who] my eyes were seeing.

All heat seemed to drain from my body at once, I felt ice cold, my heart was beating so hard it was painful, my legs went spaghettiose. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and that I actually didn’t want to breathe. But somehow I managed to keep walking.

I made it to the stairs leading to the waiting room, and bumped into Z. who was coming down them. I could hear her greet me, and I know I said something back, ‘though I have no idea at all what I said. All I remember was that I thought my knees were going to buckle under me, and focusing ALL my energy on this tea cup Z. happened to be holding, because that was the only thing that seemed to not be spinning, that seemed real, safe. [Could write a whole essay on why it was the tea cup, rather than Z. herself, that seemed real and safe, but it seems of secondary importance right now.]

I got to the top of the stairs and into the waiting room and collapsed on one of the chairs, shaking from head to toe. My hands were trembling completely out of control. It is something that happens to me in moments of extreme anxiety or fear, and I tend to hide my hands so that no one will see it.

By the time I got into Z.’s consulting room I was in what I could only describe as a state of shock, unable to speak. I’m not sure how long for, it might not have been very long in real time, but it felt like an eternity. I felt like all my words were stuck in my throat, blocked by this horrible, unmeltable, icy lump of fear.

Z. at first assumed that it was an air freshener that had triggered this reaction in me, as in a previous session I had reacted to it, as it somehow reminded me of another, similar, smell that almost inevitably sets off a chain of flashbacks, so she went to open the window a little wider. I managed to let her know that that wasn’t it. I’m not sure if I actually told her, or if she asked and I just shook my head.

Eventually I was able to explain to Z. what had happened, who I thought I had seen. Who I felt sure I had seen.

It was such a strange sensation, all these extremely intense feelings, very similar to when I am having flashbacks, only I wasn’t in a flashback. I was reacting to something real. To someone real.

I tried to calm myself down, tried to tell myself that no matter how much this person looked like M., the odds that it was really him was very, very small, infinitesimal, really. But, somehow that just didn’t matter. I experienced a complete split between intellect and emotion, an absolute refusal to believe that it was just someone who looked like him: every cell in my body was telling me that it was him, and no amount of rationalisation or probability calculation could change that.

It was as if every single incident of abuse that he had ever subjected me to in the year or so he was living with us were washing over me all at once, like an enormous tidal wave, sweeping all rational thought from my mind, leaving me completely and utterly encased in ice cold fear, trapped in panic mode. I managed to tell Z. this; that I felt terrified, like the abuse could start over at any second, because in my mind M. was sitting downstairs, and he was always able to find a way to play his cruel games. It didn’t matter that there were lots of people in the building, or that Z. was in the room with me. He could do whatever he wanted, absolutely whenever he wanted to back then, and to me this was still true now. Z. tried to reassure me that no one could hurt me, that I was safe, and I could hear 8-year-old Little S ask “Am I?” in a tone drenched in doubt, so certain in the knowledge that there is nowhere in the entire world I am safe from him, as long as he is still alive.

I genuinely cannot remember feeling so scared or so panicked ever in my life, not since the abuse was actually happening. And that feeling hasn’t subsided. I feel like I am stuck in this horrendous place where my usual, reasoned, realistic way of dealing with things is completely helpless to shield me from my own feelings. I am trying my best to tell myself that it can’t have been him. And at the same time, in my head, it was. There was something about the way my body just reacted to seeing this person, that just makes it impossible for me to accept that it wasn’t.

I told Z. that I was scared of when I would have to leave that room and go downstairs again, even though on the way out I don’t have to go through the dining hall. Z. very gently offered to come with me, so I wouldn’t have to go on my own, in fact she offered more than once, but I had already switched into my ‘Let No One In, Trust No One’-mode, telling her “I’ll be OK. I’m always OK”. To which Z. answered that I certainly had come through a hell of a lot, but she also reminded me that there was no need for me to ‘Be OK’ in session or with her.

I did leave on my own. I’m not sure how. All I know is that as soon as I was out of the building and across the street, tears were streaming down my face and I had to stop twice to be sick before I even got to the bus stop.

I feel so frightened now. And I am scared about going to my next session. I want to go to it, but what if he is there again? I don’t know if I can cope with it. In many ways it doesn’t even really matter whether or not it really is him: the fear he instilled in me back then has returned with a vengeance, regardless of which it is.

I wrote Z. an email earlier this evening, asking could she meet me downstairs in the reception area next session, because it might help me feel a little less frightened if I know I won’t have to walk through the dining hall on my own. It is very unusual for me to ask for help. I am so used to always relying on myself to find ways of dealing with everything on my own, no matter how hard. But I was thinking about what Z. said in session, that there was no need for me to ‘Be OK’, and decided that it was better to ask than to push myself through more fear and anxiety than what is actually necessary.

 

I am sorry that this ended up being such a long post. I suppose there was a lot I needed to get out of my head.

 

Be kind to your Selves.

xx

Trauma Focused Counselling, Psychoanalytic Therapy & Bridging The Gap

By now I have had nine sessions with Z. Only, it’s turned out very different to what I had thought it would be. Two sessions ago Z. said that she felt concerned about us doing deep trauma-focused work, said that she wasn’t sure it would ultimately be to my benefit if we started unpacking memories that would undoubtedly cause a lot of pain, when we have so very few sessions together and might not have enough time to get any closure. She also said that she was unsure if we should do all sixteen sessions as planned, or if we should perhaps instead spend a few sessions thinking about how the work we have been doing so far could be brought back into A.’s consulting room. Or, Z. added, maybe what we need to do is look at sorting out a referral to someone else, someone who specialises in trauma-treatment, but who – unlike herself – could offer long-term therapy?

All this came as a bit of a shock to me, because, after all, Z. had been handed my referral and would have known the extent of trauma I have suffered, and she also knew the premises we were working on from the outset: sixteen sessions, no more, no less, unless I decided to cut counselling short. Of course, intellectually I can appreciate the concerns voiced by Z., but it was still a tough one to take in. Also – perhaps more importantly – I know myself fairly well, and I could see right away that no matter how much intellectual sense this proposal made, it would only be a matter of time before those deep seated, fear infused questions started popping up in my head and heart: Was that really the reason why Z. wanted to cut counselling short? Maybe this was just what she was saying, because she didn’t want to tell me that I had once again become ‘too much’? What if the real reason was that the stuff I had shared already was more than she could cope with? Needless to say my internal Here-We-Go-Again alarm bells were going off like crazy.

Of course, the rational part of me knows that it is unlikely that Z. would lie to me, or that – given that working with trauma is What She Does – the bits and pieces of trauma I had let her in on would be too much to cope with, but as we have seen time and time again, intellectual understanding and emotional response rarely go neatly hand in hand in perfect harmony. As I said to Z.; in many ways it doesn’t even matter what the real reasons for not doing the full sixteen sessions actually are: ultimately it will almost certainly become cemented in my mind as further proof that I’m ‘too much’. Or, even, that I’m not really worth the hard work that is involved, because, after all – everyone else gets their sixteen sessions, and they’re all trauma clients, too. So, this must be something specific to me.

I told Z. that, although I’m nowhere near as invested in my relationship with her as I am in my relationship with A. [yet], an experienced rejection of this kind would still bring all these fears to the surface in a way that I don’t think would be particularly helpful for me, as it would only serve to reinforce the idea that no one can truly cope with me. That no one wants to hear my story.

I feel quite pleased with myself that I managed to share these thoughts with Z., that I didn’t do what I would have done a few years ago: bury all feelings as deeply as I possibly could, right at the very edge of my conscious mind, and just accept Z.’s suggestion to end counselling early – with a bright smile plastered across my face to hide the invisible tears, to boot. I’m glad that I instead decided to ‘fight back’.  [Especially as Z. told me in today’s session that we have another seven to go, which means we will be doing the full course.]

The two sessions since Z. suggested stopping short we have spent, in part, at least, exploring what this proposition of Z.’s has done to me and how it has made me feel about Z. I’ve also explained that I am not looking to find a new therapist; I think it is crucial that I somehow find a way to bring the work I have started with Z. back to my sessions with A., both to allow me an opportunity to discover that I can overcome my fear of breaking people [and perhaps even of breaking myself], and for A. to rise to the challenge and earn my trust back, so that I dare once more take a chance and share some of the truly awful things that happened to me. To, in a sense, come full circle.

A.’s and my story began a little over four and a half years ago. It took me a good year of testing A. in a million different ways to make sure that she was for real before I even considered talking about anything much at all. After that another two years were spent slowly slowly building a genuine relationship. I began trusting her, tried to open up even when I was terrified to do so. And then in year five of therapy – boom – something went quite badly wrong. Both A. and I hit a wall, full speed, from opposite sides, and whatever trust there was got seriously dented as a result. And that’s where we are at now: we are both still in recovery mode.

What I would like to add to our story is a final phase where I get to experience that mutual trust can be rebuilt. Both that I can start trusting A. to ‘hold’ me again, to feel safe with her, to know that she can cope hearing about the things that happened to me, but also that she can regain her trust in me. It would be unrealistic and unfair to suggest that the breakdown and subsequent dent in trust was experienced only at my end; I can absolutely see that the act of nearly killing myself earlier this year, put a dent in A.’s trust in me, too.

This is the main reason why I don’t want to look for another long-term therapist, even if she happened to be specialised in trauma-focused work. I feel that the positive corrective emotional experience needs to happen in my relationship with A. The circle needs to be completed in a single relationship.

I do feel that the work I have been doing with Z. – both the trauma work and the work we have been doing in the last two sessions – has been helpful to me. It has made me try to, ever so gently, bring some of the feelings around the abuse into my sessions with A., to lower my guard that little bit more, and it has also helped me be a lot more direct in the way I communicate with A. about our relationship. I do a lot less tiptoeing around. I still feel that I want to complete all sixteen sessions with Z., because I think the time left could be well spent building bridges. I also think it’s been quite healthy for A. to see how I have responded to a very different type of therapist/counsellor, and I think it has made her reflect on the way she works with me, and what may or may not be useful in our work. I don’t mean that this has been a forced response to a threat of If you don’t do things MY way, I’ll find another therapist, because I don’t feel I have issued such a threat – the decision to do trauma-focused work outside of therapy was made before A. and I hit that wall, had been discussed in my sessions with A. – but that it’s happened naturally, on a genuine feeling level.

There is still a long way to go, for both of us, but I think we will get there in the end.

xx

PS. Following my last two posts I have (a bit surprisingly) had more than one email asking if Z.’s real name is Zoe Xxxxxxx, so I thought I’d state once and for all that NO, it isn’t. Z.’s name doesn’t even begin with Z, I just randomly picked it because her letter was already in use. As I’ve said before, I do always take as much care as I possibly can to mask other people’s real identity, and this includes the identities of my counsellors and psychotherapists. :)